Doug Garnett’s Blog


Walgreens, Campbell’s Law, and Deming: The Dark Side of Customer Surveys

Walgreens, Campbell’s Law, and Deming:  The Dark Side of Customer Surveys

A few years ago I wrote “At Walgreens: An Amazing Abuse of the Customer Satisfaction Survey” based on my experience as a customer with their survey.

The post attracted quite a few comments and they paint a picture of some highly dysfunctional HR amid the retail world, and not just at Walgreens. In fact, I’ve personally encountered “seek and punish” surveys at Volvo, Ford, and Volkswagen where sales managers are reduced to pleading with customers to fill out surveys AND to give them 9’s. I’ve also encountered it at Target, Einstein’s Bagels and even a whiff of it at Starbucks.

While you can read the original post with FULL comments here, I thought I’d pull together a sampling of the comments into a single post. As a disclaimer, I do not have first hand knowledge of these situations. And it makes sense that my post critical of surveys drew comments that were also negative on surveys. Nonetheless, the comments consistently reflect important issues for retail management.

  • “The same thing is done with the Mazda store where I purchased my vehicle. If the dealer who sells you the car doesn’t get a 10, it doesn’t count for them… The distress the system causes employees seems to be substantial–though the enthusiasm of my dealer was not in question. Very odd to hear that Walgreen’s does the same thing.”…Dawn
  • AbusedEmployee@WAG added:  “It is worse than you think. Employees have been written up and fired for poor responses other than 9s. The scale is skewed… say out of 10 ratings, nine of which the respondent gives 9s and the tenth is a 7 (still a good rating) the final score is in the 70 percentile and everyone catches heck, verbal warnings, etc.”
  • Abused also adds: “In addition, one bad rating where you are mentioned by name and your entire year of good performance can be labeled unsatisfactory on your performance evaluation and a raise denied.”
  • Amy, also a Walgreen’s employee, says, “Walgreens is using the surveys to fire managers. Only 9s count an(d an) 8 is as good as a 1. It’s crazy the pressure these stores are under to have a good score!”
  • An IT Manager in Aerospace observed “Scatter-shot surveys like Walgreens, Mazda and a multitude of other AS 9100 compliant companies use only capture the ecstatic and the pissed off, mostly the latter which is why I suppose the employees are begging customer to be ecstatic.”
  • Anne adds “And the constant pressure to receive a minimum number of surveys per week, regardless of the fact that this survey has appeared on receipts for over a year. How many times am I expecting the same customer to fill out the survey? I have seen an increase of customers who want to speak to management to express their concerns, rather than go online to leave feedback.”
  • Kathryn tells a difficult personal story at a different retailer in the automotive space. “I was number one in sales at a company in the automotive industry, every month selling more than any other employee, working hard to hit all the levels and numbers to impress management and earn a high dollar commission check each month. I was also number one in the western region (not just our dealership) for sales of a “flushing” product to clean different systems on the vehicle for maintenance.. The company surveys were approximately 30 questions. Most of which were about things that had nothing to do with me and my service. I was paid a bonus percentage of my sales for…not just my personal score but the store and zone had to be above a certain level also. After a year and a half of being very successful… (I) was terminated for “unsatisfactory performance.”
  • Kathryn also observes that customers “have no idea what their scores do to us. Is it fair that we can’t tell them their 9 or 8 or 7 can cost us a large portion of our income? I think if customers knew what companies were doing with the “scores” from the surveys they fill out, they might refuse to participate.”
  • Aaron suggests some value for the surveys, “I am a Walgreens Customer Service representative… While I agree that the survey is obnoxious and generally useless, it does provide one very essential benefit. It gives the corporation the opportunity to fire somebody legally should enough complaints come in. Maybe I’m simply misinterpreting laws here, but last I checked, companies like Walgreens and Target are incredibly afraid of being sued and are always looking for coherent, lawful reasons to ditch bad apples. I’m happy about this because I absolutely despise working with these people.”

In reading these, I’m struck by three things.

  1. These surveys are dishonest. To a customer, they appear to be asking for honest opinions and most consumers would consider a “7” to be a fine rating. The way they are interpreted, a 7 is NOT a fine rating. This disconnect makes the survey results invalid. That doesn’t mean every choice justified by the surveys is wrong – but it does mean companies should reduce their use.

  2. The surveys are 3 point scales – not 10 point scales. And the three points are 10, 9, and anything less. How did this happen? I’m guessing there was a meeting in some consumer reality-free conference room where executives competed to see how high they could place the number. And the winner said, hoping to engender enthusiasm, “for our brand, nothing less than a ‘9’ is acceptable” .

  3. This process illustrates the incredible risks of metric based management. Metric based management is idealized in business schools, is the baby of executives, and is brilliant used in the right places. But schools don’t also offer training about the incredibly powerful human urge to give metrics more importance than we should. In many real-world situations, metrics can only account for perhaps 15-25% of what’s you need to evaluate. But once metrics appear in management reports, they are treated as if they reflect 90% of what’s important. Personally, after 2 degrees in math, experience as an industrial mathematician, extensive consumer research experience, and a career in advertising, I’ve become exceptionally cautious about metrics.

Business quality expert and statistician W. Edwards Deming, while loving metrics, warned against management driven by metrics. His observation was that management by metrics leads to the perfectly managed company that fails. 

Is that happening in your store? I advise everyone involved with metrics to read Campbell’s Law. Campbell’s observation was that the more an indicator is used for decision making, the more that metric is corrupted. It only takes brief experience with sales compensation plans to see how often people “game the system” once metrics have too much importance.

The combined message of Deming and Campbell is this:  The ubiquitous presence of surveys used to evaluate store employees is hurting the customer experience in those stores. And, in the long run, this use of surveys could create your future failure.

But what to do? True customer experience matters far more than delivering survey numbers to the boss. Companies need to learn this lesson and return store managers to the fundamentals: hiring the right people, training them well, and giving them responsibility and authority to deliver outstanding customer service. And stop abusing surveys.

When you do this, then your brick and mortar experience can become an advantage in today’s rapidly evolving retail world.

Copyright 2016 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

Categories:   Business and Strategy, Communication, consumer marketing, Human Tech, marketing, Retail, Uncategorized



  • Posted: January 2, 2018 20:23

    Tim Orr

    And then there's what Dr. House taught us every week on his TV show: "Everybody lies."
    • Posted: January 2, 2018 20:33

      Doug Garnett

      And that's why I recommend true, traditional market research to replace the haphazard survey. There are excellent methods which if a survey is designed appropriately will ensure accuracy in measuring satisfaction or finding errors in experience. I presume the retailers don't rely primarily on it is they can't evaluate their retail workers with it - no matter how erroneous the data they'd rather have horrific error than nothing. The biggest impact on these surveys is store policy, inventory, and product...not the retail worker. Yet the retail worker is the one punished for, as an example, store return policies inadequately communicated.
  • Posted: January 3, 2018 01:38

    John Grabowski

    It’s similar in brick and mortar, though. I get so sick of people asking me every five minutes (in stores, restaurants, etc.) if everything is satisfactory. The most recent time this happened, I was at checkout ready to pay, and the cashier interrupted my conversation with my wife to ask me AGAIN if I was “satisfied,” after having already asked me three times in 15 minutes. I threw down my stuff and left.